Riding the rails : teenagers on the move during the Great Depression /
Errol Lincoln Uys.
New York : TV Books ; c1999.
303 p., [32] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
More Details
New York : TV Books ; c1999.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Catching Out

* * *

Leaving home was often the most wrenching decision the boxcar boys and girls faced in their young lives. They had witnessed the slow impoverishment of their families, as fathers went from half-time to no time at all, and mothers struggled to put food on the table for them and their siblings. Some had always known poverty: children whose fathers earned starvation wages in depressed coal-mining regions of West Virginia, or whose families eked out a living as tenant farmers sharecropping in the South.

    There were traditional runaways, like those fleeing an abusive stepfather or cruel stepmother, and orphans escaping institutions that treated their wards with Dickensian ferocity. There were runaways from happy homes, still enjoying all the comforts but hankering for a life of adventure, "for the magic carpet--romance--the click of the rails."

    Girls especially never took the decision to hit the road lightly, for they knew they were stepping into a world filled with danger. It was the same for young African Americans, for whom the beckoning rails could be doubly perilous should they lead into towns where the color of their skin would make them outcasts.

    Whatever the reason they left home, they each faced a defining moment when they had to "catch out" and hop their first freight. From that point on, there was no turning back.

Camelot Crashed and Burned

"Glens Falls, New York was my Camelot. Toboggan slides and skating at the park in winter. Swimming at the lake in summer. My father was so smart. He put in the first phones, working with Western Electric and AT&T. My mother was beautiful. My little sister was fun."

    Edward Vezolles cherished his boyhood memories of growing up in the small town of Glens Falls on the Hudson River. He was nine years old when Western Electric laid off his father at the height of the Great Depression. "Camelot, as I knew it, crashed and burned. We had family at Louisville, Kentucky, and moved there. My Dad supervised a WPA project for a year. Mother took in boarders at Derby time. My dad got sick. TB was the killer then. Dad died."

    Edward, his mother, and his sister were living with his grandparents when the Flood of 1937 drove two hundred thousand Louisville residents from their homes. Even more relatives sought shelter with his grandparents. Eleven people were staying in three bedrooms. Edward fell ill, half-blinded by an infection in his optic nerves. At fourteen, he was old enough to have a paper route with the Louisville Times . His mother helped him deliver morning papers by reading the house numbers. At Christmas, Edward won a live turkey in a subscription drive. Presented with the bird, he tied its legs together and rode his bicycle home, the bird flopping on his back.

    "`There must be something better than this,' I told myself. I hung around the rail yards to find out how to catch a freight train to Florida. I wanted warmth, sun, something exciting and free. I picked up and left."

    The private crash of Edward Vezolles's world was repeated in millions of American homes amid the human catastrophe unleashed by Wall Street in the five days from October 24 to October 29, 1929. The panic on the New York Stock Exchange on Black Tuesday convulsed preexisting fault lines of the American economy, society, and culture.

    Through the Roaring Twenties, agriculture, energy, and soft-coal mining had been on shaky ground. In that decade the value of farm land fell 30 to 40 percent, even as farmers' indebtedness soared. Bank failures averaged six hundred a year. Mergers swallowed up six thousand previously independent companies, leaving over half of American industry controlled by two hundred corporations. By 1929, the richest .01 percent of Americans had a combined income equal to the bottom 42 percent. More than half of all Americans lived on the edge of--or below--the minimum subsistence level.

    The productivity of industrial workers rose 43 percent from 1919 to 1929, but while American producers could deliver the goods, they were finding it increasingly difficult to sell their products at home or overseas, where a fragile European consumer market was already shrinking.

    The boom-and-bust land rushes in California and Florida in 1923 and 1926 were indicators of the speculative mania abounding throughout the nation. The stock market began its spectacular rise in those years. When the day of reckoning arrived, a million people held shares, not only the financiers of lower Manhattan, but small-town merchants, farmers, schoolteachers, and clergymen, all gambling on getting a piece of heaven on earth.

    The tsunami that hit Wall Street in October 1929 swept everything in its path until the economy hit rock bottom in 1933. About nine thousand banks failed and $2.5 billion in deposits was lost. Unemployment rose from 1.5 million in 1929 to nearly 13 million, or about one in four of the labor force. Not since the Civil War had the American nation stared so deeply into the abyss.

    In the eyes of the young, what mattered was the odd dime or nickel for a movie matinee or a few "coppers" to toss away on Tootsie Rolls and licorice sticks. Even an enterprising go-getter like Edgar Bledsoe, who had his own business at eleven, didn't have the foggiest notion of the goings-on on Wall Street. Edgar lived in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where a thousand people danced at the city bandstand on Saturday nights, reveling in the prosperity brought by oil and cotton. His parents' having divorced, Edgar stayed with his mother and sister. In March 1925, fire destroyed their home, forcing them to accept help from others. "It was a while before I realized that charity was not a disgrace, but an old Latin word for love," mused Edgar, reflecting on those days.

    One day, Edgar was admiring the new lawn mowers in the window of Lane's Hardware, when the owner came out and offered to sell him a mower. "Heck, Mr. Lane, I'm only a kid. I don't have that kind of money," Edgar said. Lane asked for two dollars down, the balance of eighteen dollars to be paid out of Edgar's earnings mowing lawns. He never missed a payment. Over the next four years, he built up a lawn-mowing business that supplemented his mother's earnings as a seamstress: They never lacked for the necessities.

    Then, one day in October 1929, Edgar heard a newsboy yelling, "Extra! Extra! Stock Market collapses."

    "I ran home and told Mother that a cattle auction barn had collapsed. It must've killed many cattle and some people, too, because the newsboy sounded like it was pretty serious. That's what a stock market meant to me at the time."

    By next summer, Edgar knew it was more serious than a barn caving in. Many local people had lost their jobs or were forced to take a salary cut. Others tightened their purse strings for fear the ax could drop on them at any time. Edgar's customers began to cut their own lawns or reduce his pay by half.

    "When I was sixteen, I couldn't earn as much as I could at twelve. When it got to where the money I was bringing in could not pay for the food I was consuming, I grew more and more restless."

    Leo Truscon's father worked at Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. He had a sure indicator of when times were good or bad. The smokestacks of the River Rouge power plant were visible from all parts of Dearborn. When the stacks were pouring out smoke, it meant full production, as happened with the changeover from the Model T to the Model A in 1927. On a day in June 1931, when Truscon was fifteen, he saw but two stacks clouding the sky. A notice appeared on workers' time cards: "Do not punch time card unless you agree to a 50 percent cut in your salary."

    Truscon's father was laid off. "Our mortgage payments couldn't be met. We lost the house and moved to a small rented place," Leo recalled. "Later my father was assigned work as bricklayer on a WPA sewer project and received a food and rent allowance." When two friends sent Leo a postcard from Los Angeles, the road beckoned.

    James San Jule's father was a successful businessman in Tulsa, Oklahoma. James graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1929 at sixteen; he'd already been accepted at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and was planning to go on to Harvard Law School. Because of his youth, his father wanted him to wait a year and arranged for him to work as an office boy in the Exchange National Bank at Tulsa, where the father was on the board of directors.

    "I didn't think much of money in those days. It was just something we had," said San Jule. "My father was probably a millionaire. We owned fancy cars, a fancy house, fancy everything. I led the ordinary life of a wealthy kid, nothing spectacular. He was working in the bank in October 1929 when the debacle began. "Of course, you didn't believe it. `This is something that happens,' you thought. `It will pass.'"

    The Crash wiped out San Jule's father financially and physically. "It was a horrible, horrible period, about which I understood little. What's a kid to do? You have no worries about anything. You're going to Amherst and Harvard. All of sudden your life is blasted out of existence. It felt like being de-princed."

    In the winter of 1930, San Jule ran away from home, not quite sure where he was going, or even why he was leaving. It just seemed the right thing to do.

There Was Never Any Money

For the young boy or girl born on the other side of the tracks, Black Tuesday darkened an already bleak existence. William Wallace was twelve years old in 1933, staying in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, with his mother, stepfather, and fifteen-year-old sister, Fannie. Looking back on that awful year, Wallace states bluntly, "Living didn't seem to be for me."

    Wallace's stepfather, Evert Stubblefield, worked for Oklahoma governor W. B. Pine, on the governor's hog ranch. Bertie Frances, his mother, was employed in the Okmulgee city cannery, where hog meat and produce was canned for families on relief.

    "Fannie and I would walk to the grease-rendering plant, where they cooked the hog meat. They gave away the rinds for free, all you could carry. We would take balloon jars to a sugarcane mill and buy sorghum molasses for fifty cents a gallon. We collected fruit and vegetables thrown out at a warehouse. My mother would can these for winter."

    Wallace's flight from Okmulgee began in the winter of 1933, when Bertie Frances received a letter from her brother in California. He offered Frances and Evert jobs, provided they arrived within two months. The family decided to leave that night, each member dressing in two sets of clothing and taking whatever possessions they could carry. They had $4.50 to get to the promised land.

    Christine Wolfrum's father was a miner for seventeen years until the Depression. "There was never any money," recalled Christine, who was born in Kentucky in 1921. "School paper cost thirty-five cents a year. It would take me all year to get the money, a few cents at a time. Teachers would embarrass you continually asking when you would bring it in. You figured, `probably never.'" When Christine was eleven, she went on the road with her family, including her nine-year-old brother and her sickly mother. They trekked through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio on her father's search for work. "We told our friends we were traveling by bus or train, but we were really hitchhiking."

    Lee Leer, a grocer's son, found home to be no more than "a place of existence." His father's general store at Olive, Oklahoma, failed in the early 1930s. Lee's parents, who had six children, moved to an abandoned cotton farm a few miles outside town. They eked out a living, working to raise the food they ate and a few extra bales of cotton for cash. On a spring morning in 1937, when Lee's mother ordered him to fetch stove wood, he took his savings earned from picking cotton and selling a pig, collected his bedroll, and left to begin life as a hobo: "Little did I realize that life could be worse than on that forty-acre cotton farm, and that I would even become homesick," he recalled later.

    While children might have had difficulty comprehending the slow unraveling of home life, a single defining moment could capture it all. Coyle Case's family were "Sooners," who had staked out their claim in the first Oklahoma land rush of 1889. Growing up in the town of Padua, Coyle saw the land literally blown away in the "black blizzards" of the Dust Bowl, which desiccated the western Great Plains in the early 1930s. He watched as friends and neighbors were dispossessed. "They swept and shoveled, planted and prayed, but finally the banks moved in like vultures," Coyle recollects. "My friends left in battered cars and trucks piled high with children and dogs and mattresses and cooking utensils."

    His grandfather, Wallace Case, held no debts and owned the land on which he raised cattle. The income from the sale of the cattle and cream kept the family from starving.

    "Poppa Case was my hero. A giant tree higher than any other on my childhood landscape. On a day I recall vividly, I met my grandfather at the edge of a canyon, sobbing as though his heart would break," says Coyle. His grandparents had witnessed government agents shoot his cattle herd, a forced stock liquidation in compliance with the Agricultural Adjustment Act aimed at stabilizing prices. "Poppa Case was the rock to which our very existence was anchored. I had never seen him cry before. I knew something was wrong."

    Brooklyn teenager Harold Dropkin would never forget February 1, 1933. Around noon that day, he was sitting in the kitchen of his home when there was a knock at the door. A well-dressed young man asked his mother for something to eat. Invited inside, the stranger sat down at the table. Harold's mother asked her son to get a can of tuna fish from the refrigerator. Opening the fridge, Harold saw only one item: the can of tuna fish. His mother spread the tuna on three slices of bread and gave one to their guest. When he finished, the young man thanked them and left. "I walked over to the refrigerator and looked inside. Nothing. Nada ," Harold remembered more than sixty years later.

    In September 1932, Duval Edwards was looking forward to his senior year in high school at Alexandria, Louisiana. He knew times were tough for his family, though he didn't realize the difficulty his father was having in bringing home enough money for them to live on.

    "Dad was a Texan, a true longhorn born on the Texas frontier in 1874. He could barely write his own name, but he developed an exceptional skill. He could look at a steer or cow and figure its weight with uncanny accuracy. In good times, he made a fair profit buying and selling cattle," Duval wrote in a personal memoir. Before the Depression, his father owned a slaughterhouse. He'd been forced to close it in 1930. He used his old Model T to haul, buy, and sell cattle as an independent, but as the economy continued to slide, the price of beef on the hoof plummeted to five cents a pound. Duval remained unaware of his father's struggle until the roof fell in.

    "I overheard Mother ask Dad for grocery money. I saw him pull out a single wrinkled and torn dollar bill and hand it to her. He left without saying a word, grim-faced, his battered cowboy hat on his head. I watched him get into the old truck, set the hand brake, the spark and gas levers. He climbed out to turn the crank, then hopped back in and slowly rattled off. For the first time my eyes opened all the way. The full extent of our situation dawned on me. It was desperate."

Go Fend for Yourself

The realization that a child's family was flat broke, or just hard pressed to put food on the table, was the reason many boys decided to "hit the road." One less mouth to feed would lessen the burden on their parents, they believed, and in many homes it was true.

    In the summer of 1933, Leslie Paul was eighteen years old, newly graduated from high school in Duluth, Minnesota, the son and stepson of railroad men. His house was close by a railroad yard, where Paul often played a cat-and-mouse game with the "bulls"--the railroad detectives. Walking through the yard one day that summer, he saw a bundle laying on a pile of switch ties. He picked it up and unfolded it: A hobo's blanket had been sewn together to make a sleeping bag.

    "It was the Depression and I could find no work. I was a burden on Mother and Gus, my stepfather. I knew then what I must do," says Paul.

    He took the blanket and went home. He said nothing to his mother, only that he was going to the store to buy a box of cigarettes. When he returned home, he announced his departure.

    "Mother didn't fight it, but she was sad. She owned no suitcase or tote; she gave me a black satin bag, the size of a pillowcase, to carry my things. I jammed my `sleeping bag' inside, three or four pairs of socks, shorts, an old sweater. Mother handed me all the money in her purse: seventy-two cents. I gave her a big kiss and a long, tight hug. The tears were streaming down her face. I left with the black satin bag over my shoulder. Had I been brave enough to turn around, I would have been coward enough to go back."

    By age eight, Clarence Lee was responsible for caring for a younger brother and sister while his mother washed and ironed clothes for others. Times got so bad for the family that they left Baton Rouge and went into sharecropping. When Clarence Lee was sixteen, his father told him he would have to leave home.

    "The landowners put a mortgage on our lives," said Clarence. "We were degraded from people down to merchandise. We were bought and sold over and over again."

    Clarence recalls his family's sharecropping slavery as "the dark days." Lying in bed at night in total darkness, getting up in the morning before sunrise and beginning work, working until the sun goes down and never seeing a dollar--to Clarence, even at high noon, it was dark.

    "I lived like that until I was sixteen years old. I wanted to stay home and fight the poverty with my family, but my father told me I had to leave. `Go fend for yourself,' he said. `I can't afford to have you around any longer.' It was very hurting, but I had to go."

    For Robert Chaney, one of ten children, the parental advice he received at seventeen was just as direct: "If I were a strong, healthy boy like you, I wouldn't hang around here and eat off my old man, I would go to California," he was told. The next evening, Robert left Wadsworth, Ohio, with a friend. His mother had given him fifty cents and a lunch bag filled with fried green tomatoes and peanut butter sandwiches.

    Fathers and sons sometimes left home together in search of work. Berkeley "Bill" Hackett started selling newspapers on the streets of Flint, Michigan, at the age of eight. One of six children living with his mother and stepfather on a two-acre plot, all the members of his family pitched in to help put food on the table. One night in summer 1929, when Bill was thirteen, his stepfather came home wide-eyed with excitement. "I've found a job unloading coal cars in Kalamazoo," he said. The pay was twenty-five cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Howard told the family that he was taking Bill to work with him.

    With no car and no money, the pair had to ride the rails to Kalamazoo, 150 miles away. Bill remembered his mother taking all the clothes she could find and putting them on him. Then, "in the wee misty hours after midnight, Howard and I made our way to the switchyard to find a train that would take us to that wonderful promise of employment."

    Daniel Elliot's father lost the job he'd held for twenty years. At thirteen, Daniel was out of school and helping his Dad, who'd moved to Denver from Kansas. The only work he could find was as a street vendor for the Denver Tamale Company. When his father took work on a ranch at Mountain Home, Wyoming, Daniel went with him, but this job also ended. Father and son walked over the mountains to catch a freight at Laramie, Wyoming, heading for the Idaho potato harvest, the first of many trains Daniel would ride as a young hobo.

* * *

    On the road with the young nomads in 1932, Thomas Minehan reported that more than three out of four boys and girls stated that hard times drove them away from home. One Ohio social worker depicted these destitute children: "They have known no financial security, have come from homes broken for that reason, harried, kicked around, and dazed by things beyond their control. Lost, resentful because they have aged too quickly, they cry for something they cannot get from their own group. They are too old and yet too young. They have seen too much and know too much--have thought too little. They may be sixteen to twenty-one in years, but in some things they are thirty, and in others ten."

    Gene Wadsworth's father died when he was two years old, his mother when he was eleven, orphaning Gene and his four sisters. The children were farmed out to relatives. Gene landed up in a small Western town with an uncle who had five children of his own. From his first day with his new family, his aunt let him know he was not welcome. The youngest child in the house, Gene had to milk his uncle's cows and feed other livestock. He turned seventeen in 1932 and had just entered his second year in high school when one of his cousins addressed him: "Why do you hang around here where you're not wanted?" That night Gene stuffed his meager possessions in a flour sack and started down the road. Years later, he still remembered his despair: "I was about as low as a kid could get as I walked over the Snake River Bridge. I was thinking of suicide, looking down into the black water, but I kept walking. A freight train was pulling out of a little town. I stopped to let it pass. I'll never know why I reached out and grabbed a rung of a boxcar ladder. I climbed to the catwalk and hung on for dear life. I'd never been on a train before and was scared stiff."

    James Pearson's stepfather had three boys and one girl. "They couldn't do anything wrong and I couldn't do anything right," Jim recalls. He ran away from home in Newton, North Carolina, in summer 1931, when he was thirteen. He got as far as El Paso, when he became homesick. He panhandled a penny for a postcard and wrote home. "Mom, I'm coming back. Not because I have to but because I want to. Love, Jim."

    When he reached home, peace reigned for a while. Then his stepfather was caught bootlegging whiskey. He was put on a chain gang for two months. Jim went to the welfare office, where he was given a work-relief job for two days a week. He worked nine hours for a $1.80 food allowance at the A&P, plus a twenty-four-pound bag of flour doled out by the government. When his stepfather was released, he showed no gratitude to Jim, who'd been the sole support of his family. Their troubles flared up again.

    "This time I hugged my mom and told her I'd keep in touch," said Jim. "I didn't want to leave, but felt I had no choice."

    In the early 1930s, Betty Stone served as a caseworker at the Brace Newsboys Home, which opened its shelter to migrants arriving in Manhattan. Ms. Stone observed, "Frequently the boys said they had left home because of a cruel stepmother, and sure enough, frequently social workers would write back that it was true."

    Orphanages contributed heavily to the army of wandering boys. In July 1931, nine-year-old Richard Myers' mother, who was gravely ill, signed him over to a Pittsburgh orphanage. The next day Richard was on a train to Iowa, where he had been placed with a farm family.

    "They beat me and practically enslaved me," Richard recalled. After a month and a half, he ran away, but was picked up by the police and returned to his guardians. Within two weeks, he fled again, riding the rails back to Pittsburgh. He found his mother out of danger and they were reunited.

    John Gojack's mother had perished in the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918. His father, Janos, worked at the Dayton Pipe Company, laboring all day at a fiery drop-forge hammer. Unable to cope with six children, Janos kept his three girls at home and put three boys in the care of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Dayton. From the age of six, Gojack made repeated efforts to flee, on one occasion after being beaten and having his head shaven for speaking in Hungarian, his mother tongue. "My runaway attempts failed until age twelve, when I discovered the railroad," Gojack wrote in his memoirs. "It was no trick for a swift, skinny kid to grab the rung of a ladder on a slow-moving freight, then climb up on top or swing into an empty boxcar, going who knows where."

    Gy Thomas was pushed out of the McCune Home for Boys near Independence, Missouri, where he spent twelve of his childhood years. In 1937, the home released all boys over seventeen in an attempt to reduce costs. Thomas made his way to Kansas City, where he lived on the streets until he became disgusted with a life of begging. He made his way to the rail yards, where hopping a freight "came almost as second nature."

Scenery Bums

The majority of the youths riding the rails across the United States did so out of desperation and hope, most fleeing abject poverty and want. As the Great Depression wore on, these needy children were joined by increasing numbers of youth out for adventure. Parents often gave their blessing to these "scenery bums," who hit the road in summer to escape forced idleness and boredom at home.

    In the summer of 1931, the "five 'boes" of Freeport, Illinois, struck out for the West in an old car bought for twenty-five dollars. The car got a flat tire before they reached the city limits, and finally died on them at Rock Rapids, Iowa. The five hoboes, ages sixteen to eighteen, rode the rails and hitchhiked to the Grand Canyon and other sights of the West. They made it all the way to San Francisco and then back home across the Mojave Desert. The six-week adventure of Robert Schmelzle and his four companions made headlines in the Freeport Journal-Standard of August 10, 1931. It told of their return and said, "the boys enjoyed the journey despite the hardships and declared they wouldn't have missed the experience for anything."

    When James Carroll graduated from high school in 1932 and couldn't find a job, he took his savings of twenty-four dollars and left to discover the United States. "I rode the locomotive tender out of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad station. The moon was full, the sky was clear and the weather was perfect. I had never been more than thirty miles from home, and now I was free, on my own, beginning a wonderful adventure."

    However, not every boy adventurer took off with mom or dad's approval. At Fort Worth, Texas, Claude Franklin, thirteen; his brother Charles, sixteen; and their friend Robert Brookshire, also thirteen, planned their trip for three weeks. The night before departing, they put extra clothes in paper sacks, sneaked them out of the house, and buried them under bushes. They set out after lunch on Sunday, May 8, 1938, taking a supply of candy bars and forty cents. "We headed for the Texas and Pacific Railroad yards," said Claude. "We left no note, because we didn't want to be stopped. What a cruel thing to do on Mother's Day!"

    In New York City, two days after graduating from high school in 1932, Hank Kaban told his mother that he was going on a picnic with friends. His mother packed a lunch for him. "I got on a subway train and was off to see the United States!" says Hank.

    The impulse to wander could come from the experts themselves--veteran hoboes who could cast a spell over a red-blooded boy, as Nels Anderson suggested in his 1923 study of juveniles. At Brewton, Alabama, a small creek a quarter of a mile from the railroad tracks provided the local swimming hole, where Edgar Shanholtzer and his friends spent their summer days. It was also a favorite watering place for hoboes, who would "jungle up" there for weeks. Edgar found the transients energetic and independent. Their stories of faraway places fascinated him. His father was an engineer on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and made a good wage. Whenever he could, Edgar lugged bags of potatoes and vegetables to the hoboes, a charity his father tried to discourage with a razor strap. "The hoboes thought I was one of them, and in my heart I was," Edgar reminisced. The day school closed in 1937, Edgar, thirteen, hit the road. He asked a friend to take his bike home and tell his father he would back in time for school.

    When Harlan Peter was a boy, a hobo came to beg a handout at the kitchen door of his parents' home in Wisconsin. While he waited for food, he sang a ditty about the "lemonade springs in a big rock candy mountain" and an enchanted land to the west. "Just sleep under a tree. In the morning, throw up a rock or two and down comes breakfast," said the old fellow. "Years later I discovered that old bum had a bad habit," said Harlan. "He told lies to little kids."

    Partings could be especially poignant for parents strapped for cash and reluctant to let their children ride the rails. This was the only way that Glen Law and his brother, Walt, could travel from their home in Wenatchee, Washington, to college in Indiana, to enroll as freshmen in 1935. On the day of their departure, their mother and father drove them to the Great Northern terminal to the south of Wenatchee. The brothers climbed over the fence and trudged across the tracks to an empty boxcar, where they settled in the doorway. They watched their mother dabbing at her eyes as she spoke to their father, sitting in their old Model A Ford. Their father climbed out and came across the tracks to them. Long after, Glen Law could still hear his father's words: "`Take off those old ragged shoes, Glen. We can't have you starting college in them,' my father said. I started to argue, but a look at Dad's rigid jaw stopped me. Without a word, I exchanged shoes and thanked him."

Boxcar Girls

Ina Máki's father had ridden the rails from Minnesota to the Dakotas for the wheat harvest. She knew boys in her town who had traveled by boxcar. When Ina graduated from high school at Virginia, Minnesota, in 1939, she wanted to see the United States before attending college in the fall. She told her father she was going to ride the freights. "Father always supported my projects," Ina recalled. "`It will be dangerous,' was all he said, and he gave me ten bucks." Before making her way to the rail yards in Duluth, Ina spent most of her money on a permanent wave. On her journey, she would be known as "Curly."

    In 1935, Dobie Stadt and a girlfriend were set to strike out from home. Eighteen-year-old Dobie was a waitress and her friend, a theater cashier. They'd heard about the San Diego World's Fair opening that May and decided to hitchhike and ride the rails to that exposition. "We left Miami dressed in skirts and blouses, tan and white saddle shoes and bobby socks, and white tams on our heads," remembered Dobie. "We each carried a small suitcase holding all our possessions."

    Vivid images of boxcar girls remain with witnesses who saw them on the freights. Joseph Rieden and his brother Ralph were riding from Chicago to Idaho in 1930 when a man began bothering two young women in the boxcar. The brothers went over and told the man to leave the girls alone. As they approached a town, the girls stood next to the brothers in the boxcar door. Ralph described what happened next: "Suddenly one of the girls took out a gun and shot three of five crows sitting on the telegraph wire. Everyone had respect for them after that."

    Clay Nedblake of Ohio was in a boxcar with forty people, including five or six women sitting close to the open door. The women wore boots, and in their boots, all carried stilettos.

    A few women rode the rails for love. Seventeen-year-old Violet Perry married at Harrisburg, Illinois, in July 1933. She left on her honeymoon with her twenty-one-year-old husband, Floyd, riding the rails to "moonlit nights on the prairies, deserts, and mountains."

    Young wives sometimes traveled cross-country with husbands who where looking for work. Edith Walker was in her teens and married when she found herself living with her husband Bob's family on a farm in Cullman, Alabama, in 1933. Other hard-pressed siblings and their families had sought refuge on the farm. Fifteen people in all sat down at the dinner table there. "There are too many people living on Papa," Bob said to Edith that September. "We are leaving."

    Bob had friends who owned a restaurant in California, where he thought he might get work. Edith had an uncle and aunt in Florida. They flipped a coin: Florida it was. They packed their belongings in Edith's suitcase. Edith owned a pair of shoes which she'd bought and not worn. On the way out of Cullman, she returned the shoes to the store for a refund of $1.95. With a bankroll of $6.40, Edith and Bob started for Florida.

    In March 1935, eighteen-year-old Norma Darrah's husband, Curly, lost his job in Kenyon, Minnesota. Curly's brother, a carpenter at Casper, Wyoming, offered him an apprenticeship. "We gathered warm clothes, a frying pan, a pot, some knives and forks, our bedding, and my husband's shotgun and shells," wrote Norma. "We had three one-dollar bills for the three of us, which we wanted to last until we reached Casper. What a vain hope that was!"

    Harold Kolima's mother was one of many young women and girls forced to take to the road alone. Harold recalls a haunting scene: "A mom, three little boys, ages five, seven, nine, with bed rolls and a large suitcase, and a puppy dog tagging along, walking through the rail yards at Omaha, Nebraska. They are looking for a freight headed west. The year is 1937." The Kolima boys and their mother were fleeing social workers, who sought to remove the children from their mother's custody. For the next four years, they lived a "Grapes of Wrath" existence in hobo jungles and harvest camps, wintering in Sacramento, California, and taking boxcars to and from Nebraska to follow the harvests.

    Crushing financial and emotional burdens overwhelmed young couples. Young wives and husbands parted as the men drifted off to seek work in other states. This separation could often become permanent. Naomi Trout was twenty when she gave birth to a son in Seattle in December 1930. Five months later, her husband was laid off. They split up, Naomi and their baby returning to her parents' home in Idaho, her husband going to look for work in Wyoming. It was two years before she received news that her husband was back in Seattle, where he had started a watch repair business. "I sold the baby buggy my Dad and I had made out of scrap for five dollars," Naomi recalled. "I bought rolled oats, cans of milk, spoons, metal cups, and bowls. I put them in an old hatbox and hit the road with Junior." On her journey with the toddler, Naomi would encounter both generosity and harassment from fellow travelers, culminating in her husband's brutal dismissal of her and the baby when she reached Seattle: "He said we were excess baggage and didn't need us anymore."

    Lucille Asney was a child when her parents separated in the Depression. "My memories are very bright when I think of my courageous little mother, Mary Elizabeth Anderson," says Lucille. "Mother was a small woman, four feet ten inches, and needed help climbing up into the boxcars." Lucille's mother always carried her cat with her in a box, going from town to town in California with her children, selling crepe-paper roses.

    Among the stories of the girls are occasional glimpses of chivalry and concern. Edward Kaufmann and another boxcar boy were swapping off-color yarns when a man came over and told them to stop talking that way. Did they not know that there were women aboard? Edward and his pal obeyed, having not noticed the girls who had their hair tied up beneath their caps and wore coveralls.

    In Hempstead, west Texas, nineteen-year-old Bill Aldridge was waiting to board a freight train when a young woman asked him to hold her baby while she jumped into a boxcar. "I took the child in my arms before I realized what she was asking," Aldridge remembers. The woman caught the car in front of him. He caught the next one with one hand, holding the infant with the other. "When I handed the baby to its happy mother, I wondered what I would have done had I not made that train."

Hopping Their First Freight

Whether it was the slow unraveling of their lives that finally bore down on them or it was a snap decision, the hour came when the new nomads stood beside the railroad tracks, hearts pounding as they waited to "catch out" and board their first train.

    Bill Hackett remembers his excitement the night he left Flint with his stepfather. Howard hoisted him up into an empty boxcar, where they huddled in a corner: "A switch engine shunted us this way and that. I could see the red and green lights of signal lanterns, but not the men who wielded them. Finally, the train was ready. My heart beat fast and the adrenaline flowed. With a great spurt of steam, the locomotive got under way. Our boxcar creaked and groaned, shivered and shook, rattled and complained. What an incredible adventure! I felt as if I were Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the Swiss Family Robinson combined."

    In Seattle, Weaver Dial listened to an older brother's stories about riding side-door Pullmans up and down the coast. When he was twelve, Weaver encouraged a fourteen-year-old friend to ride the rails with him. Weaver's brother showed the pair the way south. "Around eleven, we heard the high ball," said Weaver, referring to the two short blasts from the train whistle that signaled it was leaving. "As the engine made the curve coming toward us, it looked for all the world as big as a house. Before the train picked up speed, my comrade, somewhat taller than myself, leaped through the open door of an empty car, did an about-face, and pulled me in as I ran alongside the track." That Northern Pacific freight hauled him over the Cascade mountains. "I'd never been in the rolling hills east of the Cascades. Picking my first apricot off a tree gave me the feeling that I was in Arabia!"

    Decades after the event, many freight train riders still hold their awe at the mighty steam locomotives that carried them across the continent. A Union Pacific "Big Boy" double header, for example, had engines with sixteen ninety-six-inch drivers delivering a million horses to the tracks, making the earth tremble for a mile on either side. Boyhood memories are conjured up, as evocative as the mournful wail of a steam locomotive whistle at night: "A siren song that gets deep into you and pulls you along," reflected René Champion, walking beside the tracks half a century later, with a freight rumbling past. "If I were now on the road, I would have been on that train. I would've gone wherever it led me."

    Many former riders look back with undisguised pride on the great adventure of their youth, but almost never do their reminiscences blank out the "bad old days" or the terrible dangers involved in "catching out." Here and there, memories are of well-heeled boys on a summer lark. The majority faced a long, hard road. Even as he "flipped his first freight," many a boy learned just what he was in for.

    When Kermit Parker entered the freight yards at Pendleton, Oregon, he was mystified by the maze of tracks. It was 1935, and Kermit had needed to travel to Chicago, where he wanted to enroll in a summer course for trainee electricians. No main line served his hometown Walla Walla, so Kermit hitchhiked to Pendleton, a division point, where freight trains stopped to change engines and crews. "The Pendleton yards were very complicated, with numerous parallel tracks filled with freight cars," recalled Kermit. "I'd no way of telling which string of cars was going to be made up into a train, and which were not." Fortunately, as happened with many novice hoboes, other "passengers" awaiting freight trains took pity on Kermit and showed him how to tell when a train was ready for departure, where to get on, and what part of the train to board.

    In some yards, young hoboes were even helped by sympathetic railroad men. A Pere Marquette engineer dismounted from his locomotive and walked over to where Ted Baer and his twenty-year-old wife, Erna, were waiting at a switch. He asked where they were headed and they told him: Grand Haven, Michigan. "That's my train you want," he said. The engineer took the couple down the line and opened a boxcar that was newly cleaned. Ted and Erna never forgot that act of kindness.

    On one of Weaver Dial's journeys, he was caught in a rainstorm one night as he stood with a group of hoboes waiting to catch out in the Vancouver, Washington, rail yard. An armed railroad bull challenged the group, making them line up and empty their pockets, but he found nothing more threatening than a pocket knife. The bull demanded to know where the hoboes were going. "Most thought they were going to jail, but with long strides the bull went over and opened an empty boxcar," said Weaver. "He told everyone to climb aboard. When the last person was inside the car, he turned and vanished into the darkness."

    Such soft-hearted railroad detectives were a rarity. It was more common for youths caught trespassing on railroad property to be handled brutally or marched off to jail. On a May morning in 1935, Vernon Roudebush was caught by the bulls at Sheridan, Wyoming. As the group he was with was lined up, the chief detective strode up and down the line, wielding a club in one hand, a revolver in the other. "What are you bums doing on my train?" he roared. Vernon was a seventeen-year-old runaway from Chicago, roving the country in summer. Whatever answer a hobo gave to the bulls, he was beaten. Vernon was knocked to the ground twice. "My nose was bleeding; my arms were covered with welts from trying to protect my head. I'd befriended a kid with an abscessed tooth. A bull belted him on the side of his swollen jaw. I'll never forget the kid's scream of pure agony."

    In 1934, when he was fourteen, Glenand Spencer was pistol-whipped by Texas Slim in the Fort Worth freight yards. Texas Slim, the notorious railroad bull on the Texas and Pacific line between Texarkana and El Paso, was said to boast that he had shot seventeen men. Spencer found railroad bulls from Georgia to Texas to be willing recruiters for local officials who wanted free labor on their farms. The bulls would let hoboes catch out in their yards and then shake down the train at a prearranged spot outside town. Able-bodied men would be arrested by the local sheriff and sentenced to thirty to sixty days on the "cotton farm," which may also have been peanuts, sugarcane, whatever crop needed to be worked. Spencer was caught in two such roundups, but because of his age and small size, discarded like a too-small fish.

    On his way west, coal miner's son Arvel Pearson was in Lahotta, Colorado, waiting to catch a freight to Dodge City. Two railroad bulls with sawed-off shotguns stood by to stop hoboes from boarding a leaving train. The fifteen-year-old Arvel saw the last car coming up. "It was now or never. I caught the eye of one of the bulls as I ran to the car, grabbed on and began climbing." The bull started shooting, the buckshot hitting just above Arvel's head. Then he heard a shout, "Swing in here, kid, that guy's trying to kill you." His rescuer was the train conductor, who was standing on the caboose. Arvel swung in between the two cars, the only hobo to make it to Dodge City that day.

    Catching out "on the fly," when a train was already under way, was perilous: One misstep could cost a youth his legs, even his life.

    After Leslie Paul's tearful farewell with his mother at their home in Duluth, the eighteen-year-old hitchhiked to Carleton to catch a westbound freight, reaching the yards in the fading light of a summer evening.

    Leslie heard the blasts of a highball and saw a locomotive a quarter of a mile away at a water tank. Gray and black discs of smoke rose intermittently from the stack. The train began to move toward him, accelerating rapidly. He ran to the side, as the engine roared past. He raced alongside, trying to equalize the speed. He held his mother's black satin bag with his belongings in his right hand, his left hand free. Leslie still relives the moments of terror that followed: "My left hand grabbed the rung of a ladder and held fast. The momentum jerked me off my feet. Suddenly it was dark and like a nightmare. I was grasping for a hold with my right hand, still clutching the bag. I tried to get my feet on a lower rung and missed. I felt the motion of the wheels as my feet brushed them.

    "The inside of a hospital flashed into my mind. I saw a young kid lying without his legs, suffering all the agonies of hell. God erased that picture. Out of the dark, a strong hand grabbed me and pulled me into the boxcar."

    Leslie's rescuer was an experienced hobo, who lectured him on catching out safely as the boxcar rattled through the Minnesota night. The noise from the wheels rose deafeningly, the car vibrating end to end.

    "No further words passed between John and me," Leslie remembered. "His presence was enough to soothe my loneliness. It was my first night away from home and already I wished I was back. Was I leaving little for nothing?"


Copyright © 1999 Errol Lincoln Uys. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1999-12-01:
Riding the Rails is a companion book to an award-winning documentary film of the same name. Uys, the coproducer of the film, quotes heavily from the American History Project--the organizational name under which thousands of letters and hundreds of firsthand accounts from teenage hobos who had ridden the freight trains during the Great Depression were solicited for the film--to write a lively portrait of their lives. The book is divided into four sections: the teenagers' motivation for leaving home; their experience of riding the rails; life on the road; and getting a job. Uys admires his subjects but does not romanticize them. His is a pluralistic interpretation that presents various reasons why the 250,000 white and black, male and female teenagers left home, ranging from financial need to a search for adventure. Variety also characterized their experiences; some were treated badly and became disillusioned about life on the road, while others enjoyed the excitement and found jobs and security as a result of their travels. Of particular value are the three verbatim interviews that follow each section. The 54 evocative photographs from the Library of Congress contribute to the book's usefulness. All levels. E. W. Carp; Pacific Lutheran University
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-07:
When Uys's son and daughter-in-law solicited reminiscences for a documentary film on teenagers' lives on the rails between 1929 and 1941, some 3000 people replied, often at length. Many looked back fondly on a time when they truly felt free: "There is no feeling in the world like sitting in a side-door Pullman and watching the world go by, listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels, hearing that old steam whistle blowing for crossings and towns." Yet the overall tone of their memories is somber. "You were always with people on the trains but...everyone on the road... was lonely." "Kids on the road didn't know how to play....We never thought about being teenagers. All we thought about was surviving." This is an elegantly presented and quietly moving collection of firsthand reminiscences, capturing a unique moment in American history. Uys, a veteran writer and editor, is the author of the historical novel Brazil. Enthusiastically recommended for all public libraries.ÄDavid Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-06-21:
This erratic account of the 250,000 "boxcar boys and girls" who traversed the country during the Great Depression amounts to an oral history of the seldom-studied lives of teenage hoboes. Using material gathered for a documentary film of the same title (made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, the author's son and daughter-in-law), Uys draws on interviews, letters and other fragments from thousands of former rail-riders who answered an announcement in Modern Maturity magazine seeking reminiscences about their lives. A number of anecdotes offer insight into the desperation that led teens to leave impoverished homes. A sign at a Louisiana cafe, for example, stated succinctly: "Dishwasher WantedÄonly college graduates need apply." Jobs were so scarce that one 18-year-old climbed eagerly on a locomotive in Ohio after hearing there might be work at a Los Angeles hotdog stand. The poignancy of such moments is diminished, however, because the various episodes are hitched together like random cars on a freight train and the text takes on the aimless movement of its young subjects as they drift in search of a hot meal. The most accomplished passages frame the vicissitudes of hobo life within the larger context of Depression-era politics. For many former hoboes, New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps offered the only alternative to hunger, jail and degrading hardship. Most remarkably, perhaps, this book shows how the occasional generosities encountered on the road instilled in these wanderers a lifelong ethos of humility and compassion toward others. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, June 1999
Booklist, July 1999
Library Journal, July 1999
Choice, December 1999
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
An Army of Children on the Loose Rugged Individualists When School Was Out "I Knew I'd Made a Mistake"
The Wrong Side of the Tracks
In Harm's Way Bitter Harvest
A New Deal for Youth Catching Out Camelot Crashed and Burned
There Was Never Any Money Go Fend for Yourself
Scenery Bums Boxcar Girls Hopping
Their First Freight
The Interviews
Hard Travelin' Face into the Wind Fellow Travelers Danger Ahead
"See America First-Travel by Rail" Black Road Kids The Bulls
The Interviews Rene Champion, 1937-41
Hitting the Stem Hoover's Prodigal
Children Hungry Times "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum"
The Kindness of Strangers Have Pity on the Boy
A Good Place for a Handout Mean Streets
In the Jailhouse Bughouse Hotel The Jungle
The Interviews
The Way Out Looking for work Fire Fighters
Keep on Moving For Richer, for Poorer Vagrant Ambition
Harvest Tramps Cotton Pickers
The Tree Army
The Last Ride End of an Era
A Rite of Passage Lessons of the Road
The Interviews
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem